Despite a reputation for raucousness, some 40 Occupy Orange County members gathered quietly outside of Fullerton city hall last night to discuss the future of the local movement after Wednesday's dismantling of Irvine's three-month protest.
While two Occupy leaders outlined negotiations with Fullerton officials about upcoming rallies and a possible encampment site--Brea Dam, the mostly college-aged crowd listened intently and afterwards seemed eager to participate in future protests against corporate abuses.
But the sedate vibe belied increasing bitter tensions inside the movement and speculation amongst Occupiers that personality clashes could soon kill the left-leaning protests.
That tension was underscored by a noticeable absence at last night's meeting: D'Marie Mulattieri, who started Occupy Orange County in September through social media such as Facebook and Twitter after watching the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York. She helped grow the movement through conference calls and meetings at her house which led to a major victory when the Irvine city council allowed thirty tents to be erected on city property.
"I've dissociated myself from them [current Occupiers]," Mulattieri told me. "Occupy Wall Street is moving toward a Martin Luther King-style protest and basically giving up on occupations."
Arguing that the long-term protests were never meant to last more than a couple weeks, she says paranoia and infighting wreaked havoc on morale in the Irvine encampment.
Mulattieri also says Occupy's all-inclusive sentiments may have sped the movement along a downward trajectory.
"It allowed anybody with any kind of ideology to come in and it allowed anarchists to come in and take control," she said.
As a result. the meetings lost structure and the emphasis switched from bringing in weekly speakers to planning ineffective flash mobs. Self discipline was lax among campers, trash began to accrue around the grounds and an undue burden was placed on a few who tried to maintain order.
Irvine police spokesperson Lt. Julia Engen confirms there were two arrests made during the Occupation of the city hall lawn, one involved a 19-year-old Corona man who was arrested for unlawful sex with a minor.
"It needed a little more structure," said Mulattieri. "We started out with the General Assembly rules and as the anarchists started taking control they started changing the rules."
Power grabs and mounting egos pushed away once eager protesters. "A lot of people left by mid-November," she said. "I had nobody to cover my back, so I just kind of quietly withdrew."
Charles Cha, another Occupy activist who protested in Santa Ana and Irvine, blames Mulattieri for having too much destructive influence over the protests.
"She's hated essentially," said Cha. "She has her cult of minions. There is this group of people who have an irrational allegiance to her. It's creepy."
For Cha, part of the ill will toward Mulattieri boils down to finances and unilateral control. He said, "She essentially held things hostage like the money and the Facebook group."
All told, Mulattieri and Cha say Occupy Irvine brought in roughly $2,400 in donations, more than half of that in cash. Mulattieri's faction controlled the money. Cha said protesters challenged alleged secrecy about the funds. Some even wondered aloud if the money was being properly managed. "Who are they to be the gatekeepers of our money when the will of the assembly is determined?" Cha asked.
As tensions peaked earlier this month, Mulattieri said someone keyed her car and she relinquished control over the money.
Though Cha is now among Occupy Fullerton, it's unclear how much of the bad vibe from Irvine will spill over to the new arrangement. Based on multiple interviews, it's clear that protesters have concerns that internal fighting might soon cause the collapse of the movement in the county.
Despite disassociating herself from her onetime allies, Mulattieri still sympathizes with them--especially because their activities will come under scrutiny by the Fullerton Police Department, which is struggling with a reputation for police brutality.
"I'm praying [the protesters] don't get hurt," said Mulattieri. "That's what we were concerned with in Irvine. Every time I went up there [the Irvine protest camp] I felt like the mother hen, [saying]. 'Don't smoke on the grass,' and they weren't listening. They do whatever the hell they want."